Learn a Language? Moi?

Her school days were far behind her, but Lisa Schwarzbaum was determined to improve her French abroad. Could a woman of un certain âge learn to speak with élan (and in the subjunctive)?

by Lisa Schwarzbaum
Montpellier image
The port of Sète, 17 miles southwest of Montpellier, lies on a ribbon of land between France's second-largest lake and the Mediterranean.
Photograph: Joao Canziani
The story is this: I'm in Montpellier because of Jodie Foster. Back it up: I'm in Montpellier because I'm a movie critic with the good fortune to attend the Cannes Film Festival each year. And each time I have returned home from that giddy-glam-hectic 12-day movie glut, I've unpacked the same 400 words that I've been using for the past 14 years, along with the resolve to learn more. Each time, I've then filed that notion so far at the bottom of my realistic to-do list that the goal blends in with items on my unrealistic bucket list.
That “someday” thinking changed this past May when, having performed a mime act at a Cannes pharmacy one morning to express my need for contact lens solution, I settled in to do some work in the festival pressroom. When I glanced up at the closed-circuit video screen, Jodie Foster, in town to promote a movie, was chatting in flawless French with a local interviewer. She sounded—and looked—magnificent. That, I thought. That's how I want to be! What am I waiting for? By the time dishy, blue-eyed rising Hollywood star Bradley Cooper popped up onscreen a few days later, also chatting in easy French—a sexy American ambassador for the benefits of foreign-language study—I had already begun researching my study options: university or adult-education classes? A program at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York? A suite of CDs or downloadable lessons requiring headphones? A native-speaking tutor with whom to discuss l'affaire Dominique Strauss-Kahn? In fact, I already knew where I wanted to go.
Montpellier hides in plain sight, smack in the middle of the southern border of France, within biking range of beaches on the Mediterranean. With a metro population of more than 250,000, it's an alluring, forward-looking medieval city as well as the capital of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, anchoring a fertile territory of vineyards that produce 40 percent of the country's wine. To the east are Marseille, Nice, Cannes and better-known, lavender-strewn Provence; to the west are Toulouse, Carcassonne, Perpignan and the piquant influence of Spanish and gitane—Gypsy—culture. Montpellier has a noble history as an important university town (its medical school, founded in the early 13th century, is Europe's oldest), and its people are strikingly young. (Really young: 43 percent of the population is under the age of 30.) It is France's eighth-largest and fastest-growing city; it's wonderfully convenient to nearby sandy fishing villages and artisanal wineries hidden in hills; it has carved out an entrepreneurial niche as a center for the systematic teaching of French as a second language.
 Via Google, I found a selection of schools offering year-round classes in weeklong increments. I booked two weeks at Institut Linguistique Adenet, a well-accredited school with a good international reputation that, according to its promotional literature, enrolls “thousands of students of all different backgrounds and ages from more than 70 countries.” Certainly the intake procedure was hassle free: Having completed a written 50-minute online placement exam in advance, I arrived presorted into a suitable class level. (Running on the fumes of two years of high school French with regular boosters of Cannes attendance, I leaped over Beginner and Elementary and promenaded into Intermediate 1.) The school offers a few lodging options, including housing in a student residence and boarding with a host family; having no desire to relive my university years or engage a chaperone, I picked the third option, a serviceable if bare-bones efficiency room with kitchen in an “aparthotel” a short tram ride away from school in the center of town.

First Published November 23, 2011

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